Ernst basks in national spotlight


She never really disappeared from the spotlight following her November win, but newly elected Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, is here to stay.

Ernst presented the GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address Tuesday evening, touching on the need to boost domestic manufacturing and jobs, in addition to creating a more defined strategy to combat terrorism. This new batch of limelight, some experts believe, will provide one of the best tests of whether she will fumble in Congress or become a leading lawmaker.

“Congress is back to work on your behalf, ready to make Washington focus on your concerns again,” Ernst, 44, said. “We know America faces big challenges. But history has shown there’s nothing our nation, and our people, can’t accomplish.”

David Yepsen, the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, said that throughout the midterm elections — and even now that she’s in office — Ernst has been careful with national media and focused closely on Iowa media and issues.

Tuesday night, Yepsen said, was the time for Ernst to really step away from her popular midterm election castration ad to show what she plans to do in Congress.

“Is she a workhorse or a show horse?” he said. “A conservative star of Fox News or does she want to be known as a serious hardworking member of the Senate? It’s going to be shaped by this.”

Throughout the speech, Ernst described her childhood growing up in rural Iowa — a way to identify with middle-class America, some experts said.

“You see, growing up, I had only one good pair of shoes,” Ernst said. “So on rainy school days, my mom would slip plastic bread bags over them to keep them dry. But I was never embarrassed. Because the school bus would be filled with rows and rows of young Iowans with bread bags slipped over their feet.”

But Ernst’s image doesn’t just appeal to the middle class, some experts said.

Dianne Bystrom, the director of the Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, Ernst’s military background was one of the reasons she was chosen to deliver the rebuttal.

Ernst has served as a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard. She touted this experience during her Senate campaign over the last year.

“We’ve been reminded of terrorism’s reach both at home and abroad, most recently in France and Nigeria, but also in places like Canada and Australia,” Ernst said. “Our hearts go out to all the innocent victims of terrorism and their loved ones. We can only imagine the depth of their grief … The forces of violence and oppression don’t care about the innocent. We need a comprehensive plan to defeat them.”

Ernst is an example of success, Yepsen said, and that is why she was chosen to give the response for this year.

In the past couple of years, the GOP has introduced the nation to different Republican faces, with Ernst being the second consecutive woman to deliver the party’s response in the last two years: Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers spoke after last year’s State of the Union.

In years prior, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal have also delivered the GOP responses.

Ultimately, Yepsen said, Ernst’s decision to step onto the national stage after Obama, only months after winning the biggest race of her life, cements her position as a politician who is going to continue to push herself.

“But if you don’t take any risks, you won’t gain anything,” Yepsen said. “Joni Ernst is obviously a risk taker.”

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